Patriarchal Violence in Guatemala

By: Alba Cecilia Mérida(2)

Annually on the national level there are alarming rates of femicide, or murder of women, and young and adolescent girls pregnant as the result of rape. In 2018, the Public Ministry received 5,500 complaints of rape against young girls and boys. The Ministry’s Women’s Observatory reported 2,008 Isabel-Claudina alerts for disappeared women between August 2018 and September 2019, and of these, 463 remain active. On average, four alerts are issued daily. According to the 2018 report on Monitoring Homicidal Violence in Guatemala by the Mutual Help Group, in the span of eight years, 5,907 women were murdered. The organization also reported 65,364 cases of sexual aggression suffered by women in the span of 2008 – 2018, based on data from the National Institute of Forensic Sciences (Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Forenses, INACIF).

In Totonicapán, a 10-year-old little girl was kidnapped and raped by a traveling salesman. The girl found herself tending to her family’s store when “the rapist kidnapped her, brought her to a hotel, abused her until she was left unconscious, and then left her” (Nuestro Diario, June 2019). According to information published September 3, 2019, in the digital newspaper El Quetzalteco, the rapist was sentenced to 54 years in prison. In Chiquimula “Valentín López Mateo, with the help of an accomplice, kidnapped and threw his 20-month-old baby into a pond and attacked his older daughter with a machete with the goal of getting rid of them so as to not have to pay child support” (Nuestro Diario, Guatemala, June 12 2019).

In Guatemala, there are many examples of how women, from the smallest girls to the oldest seniors, are abused, because every day throughout the country they are attacked, raped, and killed. Thus, to speak of gender violence is insufficient. The depoliticized use of this concept throughout the years has contributed enormously to the focus on women as causers of the violence that they suffer, and consequently, put the onus on them to find solutions to what is considered “their problem.”

Why are women killed in Guatemala?

How can we understand the inhumane? Why does a man rape a five-year-old girl? Why does a father kidnap his small daughter and throw her into a pond? Why does a husband hang his wife in front of his four-year-old son and then throw her into a septic tank? Why is a woman killed only to have her corpse wrapped in sheets and abandoned? Why does a former beauty queen, shot in the back by killers who return to make certain that she’s dead? The questions are numerous, as numerous as the deaths of women and the ways they are caused suffering. The answers and solutions to this grave social problem will only arise when we are able to transform the patriarchal ideas that define women, or our lives’ meaning.

The violence that is causing the death of thousands of Guatemalan women is rooted in the patriarchy, because it is there that we find the intersectionality of all systems of oppression like heterosexuality, racism, extreme poverty and social exclusion, which “feeds itself on strong and deep roots, which are not in the least bit happy, where the patriarchy(3) is a deeply rooted power structure, more so than we can imagine and more than what we are even imagining now” (Amalia Valcárcel). It has to do with a type of violence committed by society as a whole, where there is a symbolic order that places the masculine dominion over women.

Violence against women has been present throughout the course of Guatemalan history, and has had different connotations, though it has only recently been recognized for what it truly is. Presently, different sectors and hegemonic groups use violence as power, directed towards maintaining criminal networks and illicit activities like kidnapping, extorsion, murder, and human trafficking. Violence is also used to sustain the patriarchy and heterosexual order. Therefore, violence against women, from rape to murder by hitmen and significant others, can be found in all parts of society.

As an everyday manifestation of patriarchal violence, we look at the family, which remains hidden inside the walls of the house. It is spread in schools. Aggressors and rapists are protected by the authorities in communities and municipalities. Families hide and defend them. Patriarchal violence remains unpunished when the justice system is slow and dysfunctional and when the churches promote the restraint and submission of women. Because of all of this, it is patriarchal violence, because all systems operate against a full life free of suffering for women.

Documenting patriarchal life has as an objective emphasizing the fact that killing women is an immediate resource for men, whatever the context may be. Narcotraffickers kill them when they no longer serve them as drug transporters, or when the women want to break off a relationship with the boss. However, before killing them, the murderers rape them. The pimps rape them before offering them up on the market as a way to mark them. The traffickers keep them as sexual slaves before selling them. Organ traffickers rape them before quartering them. Rape is a bounty for men. A counterargument to this proposal could be “that’s what they get for getting involved with delinquents.” If that were true, then how can it be that in the span of four years, according to data from the Public Ministry 36 girls—the youngest of whom were barely a year old, while 13 of them were six—were raped in the Department of Huehuetenango?

A woman may also be killed by her boyfriend, husband or domestic partner when she tires of living in an abusive relationship and tries to end it, or when he falls in love with someone else and is unable to find another way of starting his life over and freeing himself from that which holds him back, infinitely committing femicide. What is sordid about patriarchal violence against women is that it is perpetrated against all women, whether they be Mayan, mestiza or from any other group, in all social strata and all geographic regions. The most chilling detail is that data registered with the Public Ministry and the judicial system show only the tip of the iceberg. The depth of this violence is hiding by the mandate of silence imposed upon women by their own families to protect the honor and prestige of men, because of what people might say.

Facing the facts of violence against women, we are presented with an invitation to reflect and act politically and humanely to eradicate the root causes and allow men and women to form relationships based on respect, and a love for life, including the lives of women.


(1) What is explained in this article is a part of the Report on Patriarchal Violence in Huehuetenango 2015-2018, by Alba Cecilia Mérida for the Life Justice and Liberty Association for Women, based in Huehuetenango, which will be published in November 2019.

(2) Anthropologist, feminist, and defender of human rights and the territory.

(3) Emphasis added.